08 APR 2020

Return to Earth: A Brief History of New Zealand Ceramics

Since the lockdown came into effect in the last fortnight we’ve returned to earthy, humble basics. Daily rituals of meals, conversations and enjoying time with each other in ways the fast pace of life had previously not allowed for. With our tables covered in picked over plates of food, we are reminded of the importance of ceramics. They offer an enduring connection to what is natural, a material to demonstrate creativity and a vessel to share.

Words by Nicole Drake

Ceramic works are an integral part of the history of most cultures, surviving centuries after they are created. Almost every museum holds a collection of ceramic objects – they contribute an insight into the concerns and perspectives of a people group. As we look into the modern design history of ceramics in New Zealand, we’ve unearthed a multitude of artisans and makers whose works remain collectable today.

Elizabeth Lissaman Plaque with bird design, 1980
Image Credit / The Dowse Art Musuem. Photography / Haru Sameshima

The Arts and Crafts movement is to thank for the first ceramics made in New Zealand (Source: At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design, Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, 2004, Godwit Publishing). It saw a return to a simple, uncluttered country life which appealed greatly to the colonial artisans and makers. Elizabeth Lissaman was a significant, pioneering contributor of pottery works to the Arts and Crafts in New Zealand and helped to develop the fledgling industry. Wartime shortages saw our revival in crafts, like weaving and pottery, and saw the dynamic idea of a New Zealand ‘aesthetic’ emerge.

Len Castle, Discoid Vase, 1970s
Image Credit / Mr. Bigglesworthy

Through objects, modern teaching and cultural concern potteries like Temuka, and Crown Lynn – previously known as the Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company – along with institutions such as Avondale College and Elam School of Arts, New Zealand developed a rich, vigorous cohort of luminaries. Among them were noted designers Terry Barrow, Len Castle, Patricia Perrin and Peter Stitchbury, Doreen Blumhardt, Roy Cowan , Mavis Jack, Jack Laird and Barry Brickell.

Roy Cowan and Juliet Peter at their home in Ngaio, 1970s
Image Credit / fishheadmagarchive.nz

Barry Brickell, Triple Tube Plate Folly, early 1980s
Image Credit / Credit Waikato Museum

Keith Murray Wedgewood Vase, 1933–1940
Image Credit / NGV, Melbourne

"Show us what you can do".
Tom Clark and Dave Jenkin, Crown Lynn

The ‘show us what you can do’ motto from Crown Lynn’s design program birthed several design ranges of domestic ware which achieved ‘iconic’ status. Ernest Shufflebotham, an ex- Wedgwood thrower, developed his own line of work which initially replicated that of Keith Murray but evolved to form his own individual style. Other important lines included Mirek Smisek’s “sgraffiato Bohemia” and Frank Carpay’s “Handwerk”.

Mirek Smisek, sgraffiato Bohemia Range from Crown Lynn, 1951–1952
Image Credit / Te Papa Tongarewa Museum

Ernest Shufflebotham, Hand Potted Range from Crown Lynn, 1940s

Ernest Shufflebotham vases in situ
Image Credit / Mr. Bigglesworthy

Frank Carpay, Handwerk Vase, 1948–1952
Image Credit / mutualart.com

Frank Carpay, Handwerk Pedestal Bowl, 1948–1952
Image Credit / Te Papa Tongarewa Museum

Frank Carpay, Handwerk Pedestal Bowl, 1948–1952
Image Credit / Te Papa Tongarewa Museum

John Crichton Mosaic Tile Coffee Table, 1950s
Image Credit / Mr. Bigglesworthy

With Pan-Pacific direction gaining popularity, John Crichton showed flair in producing not only furniture but also objects, which were crucial in creating depth for his interior designs. Thrifty in his use of spun-copper dishes which had previously been designed for light fixtures, he reworked them into the bases of beautifully crafted mosaic vessels. These proved to be ideal, complementary accessories in Crichton interiors and were followed by works with fused glass and painted ceramic tile. These pieces are more so coveted today and are often part of personal collections.

View Current Items for Sale by John Crichton

“How to blend a fascination with the materials and textures of the Pacific with the international vision of modern design.”
John Crichton.

John Crichton Mosaic Tile Coffee Table In Situ
Image Credit / Mr. Bigglesworthy

Pop-Art, vibrantly-coloured accessories were thought to be necessary accents in mid-and late 1970s homes. However, the natural, earthy tones of local craft, with its evocative handmade character, fitted into a world keen to move away from contemporary technology and its implications. New Zealand pottery maker Temuka introduced the Waihi and Opihi ranges by Jack Laird with rich matt ochre and brown finishes.

"I am a visionary individual and have my own thoughts. I do not want to be conditioned in my outlook by conventional or popular opinion and am prepared to be labeled an eccentric if necessary – people educate themselves when they are fulfilled and happy in their own work".
Barry Brickell

Vase by Barry Brickell

Other potters, like Brickell in the 1970s, displayed pottery that started to emphasize form over function – forms were generous, fluid and curvaceous with rich, salted surfaces which were tactile. He also developed non-functional ceramic sculptures concerned with form and surface which created a new direction for New Zealand pottery.

It seems that now, in this period of global and local uncertainty, we are once again rewarded by the embracing simple materials from the earth like clay and terracotta. We are seeing the rise of a Japanese aesthetic in ceramics of ultimate, clean simplicity with brands like Hasami. Locally, current designers like John Parker and Gidon Bing are informed by the past and emphasise the qualities of makers like Crown Lynn, combined with an architectural perspective. The future of ceramics continues to be an important vessel to share, to create and to inspire connection.

Hasami, contemporary Japanese homeware

John Parker Vessel
Image Credit / Form Gallery

Gidon Bing Ceramics
Image Credit / Good Form

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